There’s been a lot of talk since Saturday about the value of the CFA’s ‘Prepare, stay and defend or leave early’ policy and whether or not people were given adequate warning about fires in their area. When you add that to the ‘greenie bashing’ that’s going on by some commentators it looks to me like the Victorian DSE and CFA are being lined up to be crucified over this tragedy. While I have no doubt that these organisations will find ways to improve themselves with the benefit of hindsight, I think that there is a broader problem with what our expectations of emergency services are and the effort we make to understand our own responsibilities.
You’d have to be a hermit not to have heard the CFA messages over the past few months about having an adequate fire plan, it’s been a regular fixture on the commercial networks as well as the ABC, and yet in the aftermath of the fire some of the survivors who have spoken to on ABC radio have expressed amazement that they could have been affected because they lived ‘in town’. In this situation we clearly have a problem, the CFA has put out a carefully constructed message, but there are people who do not take it on board because they do not believe that they need to pay attention. How do we change that attitude? Footage on the TV of people fighting fires in shorts and thongs, with a garden hose, is fairly conclusive proof that not only do plenty of people not have a fire plan, but they don’t even understand the basics of how to protect yourself when confronted by fire.
This morning on Radio National, Fran Kelly interviewed Russel Rees, the Chief Officer of the CFA, and asked him whether there were adequate warnings given. Mr Rees pointed out that on Thursday and Friday the CFA had issued fairly explicit warnings for the entire state regarding the weather conditions on the weekend, which should have been a signal to people to activate their fire plans. Clearly this didn’t happen everywhere, with people caught out at the last minute trying to decide whether to fight or flee.
It seems to me that we have a pretty big disconnect in our communication about bushfire, like the CFA and the general public are speaking different languages, it’s something that you see in plenty of areas when experts or professionals in a particular field try to explain a concept to a person unfamiliar with the terminology, sadly in this scenario the results of not receiving the message can be fatal. With the unpredictability of fire we will never be able to achieve a situation where we can send every household a warning saying ‘You have 2 hours to leave safely, the fire will be there an hour after that’, it simply cannot be done. In addition to this, any technological solution will always be at the mercy of things like phone reception, power availability, computer failure and other unforeseen problems. When the CFA advise people to leave early, they mean before there is any danger from the fire at all, whereas most people seem to believe that a ‘just in time’ philosophy is early enough.
The inconvenience of having to leave your home for a few days each summer my indeed have to become part and parcel of living on bushland fringes. While there is talk of forced evacuations being bought in, they are notoriously difficult to enforce, with people refusing to leave their property under almost any circumstances. In addition to this, someone has to take the responsibility for ordering those evacuations, taking into account the potential mobility problems of everyone in the affected area, which means that erring on the side of caution involves getting everyone out for days at a time. No-one will want to risk delaying an evacuation order and being responsible for people’s deaths, so there will be many false alarms, which only worsens the problem of people refusing to leave. I wonder how many people in fire affected areas would have consented to an evacuation order last Thursday? Even in the scenario that they all did heed the warning, where would we house the entire non-metrolpolitan population of the state for three or four days at a time?
We seem to believe that a fire is something that we will see coming, that a fire truck will come along to fight it and then we can decide what to do, the reality is frighteningly different. The head of the NSW Fire Brigade, Greg Mullins, spelt it out earlier this week “We can’t be the safety net all the time. Our resources are stretched and we won’t be there,”. This has always been the case, which is why local volunteer brigades began in the first place, but it is a message that needs restating as our cities and towns push further into bushland and our climate becomes drier and hotter. There is no remedy for bushfire, no preventative measure available, regardless of what Miranda Devine and the Burn & Bulldoze Brigade might have you believe, the only thing we can do is try to educate ourselves better about how to live with bushfire threat. It is tragic that it takes the loss of so many lives and communities to remind ourselves that we are largely at nature’s mercy and that it is only with continuous efforts to mitigate risk that we can expect to survive unscathed.